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Polls and Bowls in the Rear View Mirror

   by Larry Ness - 01/08/2013

Polls & Bowls in the Rearview Mirror (CFB 2012)

The AP published its preseason poll sometime back in August, placing USC (led by Heisman-favorite Matt Barkley) as its No. 1 team. Alabama (the defending champs) was No. 2, LSU, the team Alabama beat in the 2011 championship game, was No. 3 with with Oklahoma at No. 4 and Oregon at No. 5. The 2012 season opened back on August 30 and just concluded this past Monday night (Jan 7), when Alabama CRUSHED Notre Dame 42-14, in what was the 15th BCS championship game. The SEC has turned the BCS national championship game into ins own “private party,” having won the last SEVEN national championship games.

However, it didn’t start out that way, as while Tennessee was the first BCS title-game winner (back in 1998), the only other SEC team to play in (and win) a BCS title game through 2005 was LSU in 2003 (beat Oklahoma). Florida St, Oklahoma, Miami-Florida and Ohio St followed Tennessee’s win back in 1998 plus USC (2004 but later vacated) and Texas (2005) followed LSU’s win in 2003. However, beginning in 2006, it’s been all SEC. In succession, Florida’s beaten Ohio St, LSU has toppled Ohio St, Florida (Tebow) beat Oklahoma (Bradford), Alabama beat Texas, Auburn (Newton) beat Oregon, Alabama beat LSU in an all-SEC affair and then of course, Alabama beat Notre Dame this season.

Notre Dame is arguably the most storied program in college football history but Notre Dame’s last national championship came way back in 1988 and in fact, the Irish now own a modest 15-17 all-time bowl record, as the postseason has not been kind to the school since the mid-90s. Notre Dame experienced a NINE-game losing streak in bowls from 1994-2006, but finally ended the skid with back-to-back wins over Hawaii (2008) and Miami-Florida (2010). Last season, the Irish dropped an 18-14 decision to Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl. This year’s Notre Dame team (coming off an 8-5 season) was unranked in the AP’s preseason poll , while ‘sneaking’ in at No. 24 in the coaches’ poll.

Notre Dame entered Monday’s game ranked first in scoring defense (10.3 PPG), holding FIVE of 12 opponents in single digits. The Irish had allowed just eight TDs in 33 red-zone opportunities (24.2%), the best percentage in the nation. One could point to Notre Dame’s 20-17 home win over Purdue, its 17-14 home win over BYU or its 29-26 three-OT home win over Pitt and say, “this team has just been lucky.” However, despite Monday’s blowout loss, that wouldn’t be fair. Notre Dame’s defensive front-seven was terrific all season and one just CAN’T ignore that in 12 regular games, only Pitt (in three OTs) scored more than 17 points.

Notre Dame just kept winning and when Kansas St and Oregon both lost back on Nov 17, the Irish moved to the top of the polls (AP and coaches’) on Nov 18, for the first time since Nov 14, 1993. Later on Nov 18, Notre Dame rose to No. 1 in the BCS standings, for the first time in school history. The final regular season AP poll had Notre Dame at No. 1 (98th week at No. 1, second to only Oklahoma’s 101 weeks as the AP’s No. 1 team, all-time) and Alabama at No. 2 (BCS standings had the same 1-2 finish). The two schools entered Monday’s championship game having each won eight AP national titles, more than any other program. Oklahoma’s won seven AP titles, Miami-Fla and USC each own five plus Minnesota, Nebraska and Ohio St all have won four.

Alabama’s performance on Monday speaks for itself. The Tide dominated from the start and led 28-0 at the half. When Alabama extended the lead to 35-0 in the third quarter, the Tide had a BCS championship game run of 69-0, having scored the final 13 points in beating Texas in the 2009 game and having beaten LSU 21-0 last year. Alabama outgained Notre Dame 529-to-302 in total yards, including 265 (5.9 YPC)-to-32 (1.7 YPC) on the ground. AJ McCarron had a “coming out party” in LY’s title game (23-of-34 for 234 yards / no TDs or INTs), winning that game’s MVP. He ‘doubled-down’ on that performance this time around, completing 20-of-28 for 264 yards with four TDs and no INTs (was again, the game’s MVP).

Then we have head coach Nick Saban. He began his coaching career at Toledo back in 1990, going 9-2. He left for the NFL, joining Bill Belichick’s staff as DC of the Browns from 1991-94 before returning to the college ranks at Michigan St prior to the 2005 season. His five-year record was 34-24-1, taking the Spartans to bowls in his first three seasons (but losing all three), before going 6-6 and then 9-2. That 1999 team got invited to the Citrus Bowl but Saban left before coaching that game, taking the top spot at LSU. Who could have possibly predicted what was to come? Saban spent five season at LSU, going 48-16, including a 3-2 record in bowls. His 2001 team won the Sugar Bowl and his 2003 team, the BCS national championship over Oklahoma.

Saban then left the college ranks for the NFL, taking over in Miami. The Dolphins went 9-7 in his first season (2005), just missing the playoffs but Miami fell to 6-10 in 2006 and Saban looked like a ‘fish out of water.’ His departure from Miami was not ‘smooth’ (I’m being kind) and he arrived in Tuscaloosa to take over Alabama prior to the 2007 season. That first team finished 7-6 after an Independence Bowl win but what’s followed the last five seasons, puts Saban among the all-time greats in the college coaching ranks. Alabama has gone 61-7 from 2008-12, winning FOUR of five bowl games, three of which came in the BCS title game (2009, 2011 and 2012).

Saban now owns four national championships, joining Notre Dame’s Frank Leahy and USC’s John McKay, trailing only Alabama coaching legend Bear Bryant (six titles, including five of the AP variety). Saban’s the first coach to win BCS titles with different schools and the first to win back-to-back titles in the BCS era. His three wins in four years matches Frank Leahy (1946-49) and also Nebraska’s Tom Osborne, if you count the Cornhuskers’ consensus titles in 1994 and 1995 plus its coaches’ poll title in 1997. Saban’s 61-years-old but looks 45. One wonders just how much he can accomplish at Alabama and would he really want to go anywhere else? Back to to the NFL? Why?

poll-mania: The final AP poll was released sometime after the BCS championship game was final (could have been released at the half) and Alabama made it nine AP titles all-time, while Oregon came in 2nd, matching the school’s best-ever AP poll finish (also No. 2 in 2001 / Do you remember Joey Harrington?). Ohio St, the nation’s lone unbeaten team at 12-0 (but on probation and not eligible in either the coaches’ poll or BCS standings), finished No. 3, Notre Dame at No. 4 (voters may have kind here!), while Georgia and A&M tied at No. 5. Stanford finished 7th, South Carolina 8th, Florida 9th and Florida St 10th. The SEC had FIVE of the nation’s top-10 teams, the most-ever by a single conference (also had seven of the top-25, matching the mark set by the SEC and Big 10 back in 1999).

Utah State (11-2) was the highest ranked non-BCS school at No. 16, topping the school’s best-ever final ranking in the AP (previous best was No. 19 in 1972). The Aggies were one of 17 teams to finish with 11 or more wins and one of EIGHT schools unranked in the preseason poll but ranked by year’s end. Notre Dame (No. 4) topped the list, followed by No. 5 A&M (highest ranking since finishing 5th in 1956), No. 16 Utah St, No. 17 Northwestern (ended its nine-game bowl losing streak by winning the Gator Bowl / only previous bowl win was the 1948 Rose Bowl), No. 20 Oregon St (off a 3-9 season), No. 21 San Jose St (off a 5-7 year), No. 22 Northern Illinois (BCS bowl buster) and No. 23 Vandy. Let’s hear it for the ‘Dores, who have their first nine-win season since 1915 and finished ranked in the final AP poll for just the second time in school history (finished No. 12 in 1948).

If eight schools finished inside the final top-25 that were NOT ranked in the preseason poll, then ipso-fatso (as Archie Bunker would say), eight schools ranked in the preseason top-25 finished unranked at year’s end. No school fell ‘harder’ than preseason No. 1 USC, which finished 7-6 after a 21-7 Sun Bowl loss to a Ga Tech team which entered that contest 6-7! Arkansas opened at No. 10 but the Razorbacks ended the season 4-8 (good luck Bret Bielema). No. 11 West Va opened 5-0 but finished 7-6, while No. 12 Wisconsin went just 8-6, losing four games by three points (two in OT), a fifth by seven points in OT and the Rose Bowl by six points. No. 13 Michigan St finished 7-6, No. 16 Va Tech 7-6, No. 19 Oklahoma St 8-5 and No. 20 TCU 7-6.

bowl-mania: The first of TY’s 35 bowls was the New Mexico Bowl. Nevada (plus-8 1/2) never trailed until the Wildcats scored TWICE in the game’s final 46 seconds (game-winner came with 19 seconds left), for a 49-48 Arizona win. It was the season’s highest-scoring bowl game (97 points) and conversely, the season’s lowest-scoring game was Va Tech’s 13-10 (OT) win over Rutgers in the Russell Athletic Bowl (Hokies had three yards rushing in the win!). Arizona State scored the most points of any team, beating Navy 62-28 in the Fight Hunger Bowl, while despite playing at home in Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego St managed to score the fewest point in a bowl game this year, losing the Poinsettia Bowl 23-6 to BYU.

The biggest pointspread upset was Louisville (plus-14) taking down Florida (No. 3 in the BCS standings) 33-23 in the Sugar Bowl. The most heart-breaking “bad beat” was Duke (plus-9 1/2) in the Belk Bowl. The Blue Devils, playing in their first bowl game since 1994, were tied 34-all with Cincinnati and were driving deep in Bearcats territory but fumbled at the Cincy six-yard-line. The Bearcats took over with just 1:32 remaining. However, the Bearcats connected on an 83-yard TD pass with 44 seconds remaining and then returned an interception 55 yards for a second TD with 14 seconds left for a 48-34 win (can’t possibly have made this one up!).

Best performance: Can it be anyone other than this year’s surprising Heisman-winner, “Johnny Football” of Texas A&M? Manziel became the first freshman to win the Heisman back on Dec 8, giving A&M its second-ever winner (John David Crow won in 1957). He then set this year’s Cotton Bowl on its ear, by running for 229 yards on just 17 carries with two TDs, while completing 22-of-34 for 287 yards (two TDs / one INT). His 516 total yards set a Cotton Bowl record and gave him 26 TD passes plus 21 rushing TDs on the season. He’s just the 4th player in FBS history to have 20 TD passes and 20 rushing TDs in the same season, joining Cam Newton (Auburn 2010) who had 30 & 20, Colin Kaepernick (Nevada 2010) who had 21 & 20 and Tim Tebow (Florida 2007) who had 32 & 23.

Good luck...Larry

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